Chinese pervert Tibet's spiritual power

Lhasa teems with alien invaders, reports Mike Dempsey. But even they feel its unearthly pull
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Among the multitude of Tibetan pilgrims circling Jokhang temple in the centre of old Lhasa, it is easy to spot the Chinese. They alone among the thousands of Tibetans are moving around the 1,500-year-old temple anti-clockwise, against the tide of Buddhist worshippers.

For many Tibetans, this transgression is unnatural; it is like Adolf Hitler reversing the direction of the Hindu swastika and turning it into a Nazi symbol. For most Tibetans, it is another painful example of how the Chinese are upsetting the harmonious balance of Lhasa, where over the centuries temples and palaces were built in this stony, two-mile high Himalayan valley on the advice of geomancers, Buddhist saints and sages.

Under the guise of economic progress, China is assailing Lhasa's spiritual character. The Communists have turned Lhasa into a kind of Himalayan Bangkok; every street is full of bars and video arcades and brothels with mini- skirted girls whose faces are rouged like spiteful dolls. It is as alien as another planet to the Tibetan nomad women, their long, plaited hair studded with hundreds of turquoise stones, who wander into Lhasa with their sword-bearing Khampa husbands.

Even the Potala, the forbidding hilltop palace where Tibet's god-kings, the Dalai Lamas, have ruled since the 17th century, has not escaped the tawdriness. A monolithic disco, "JJ's", now squats at the foot of the Potala palace, a jeering replica in brown and white of the Dalai Lama's holy abode. "What the Communists have done is a profanity," complained one Lhasa resident. The Chinese also sheared off the top of a sacred mountain, Chakpo Ri, near the Potala, which had more than 3,000 exquisite rock carvings of Buddhas and saints, and erected a giant radio mast.

Stalls selling bleeding hunks of yak meat now ring the base of Chakpo Ri, inside the sacred precinct. Prostitution is supposed to be banned by the Communists, but in Lhasa it is more brazen than in most other Chinese cities. "They don't bother hiding it. I've seen several places with big signs saying 'House of Pleasure'," said one visitor. In some neighbourhoods of Lhasa, near the barracks where about 60,000 soldiers and security police are posted, every third storefront is a brothel, hastily nailed together plywood and curtains, with about 20 girls crowded inside. Most are from nearby Szechuan. The Tibetan prostitutes, far fewer in number, service their poor clients in the rubbish-heaped alleys behind the Jokhang temple.

It seems as if every second shop is a hair salon for the prostitutes. "The time will come very soon, I'm afraid, when native Tibetans in Lhasa will be outnumbered by Chinese hairdressers," one Tibetan joked. Tibet has been flooded over the past few years by Chinese settlers. In Lhasa, a city of 200,000 people, there is nearly one Chinese for every Tibetan, and more Chinese are arriving daily.

There was the appearance of action against vice last May, when Chinese police arrested 111 prostitutes and pimps. But they have returned with reinforcements. Lhasa is far from the anti-corruption campaigns being waged in Peking; army officers are moving into private business, and the brothels are a lucrative sideline. So are banks and construction. Traditional Tibetan homes with painted window boxes are razed and replaced by drab metal and blue-glassed buildings.

The Chinese army seldom intervenes directly. Instead, the high-ranking officers operate through a shadowy elite of fixers who rose in Lhasa as the Communist Party, faced with conflicting signals from Peking, lost its ideological compass in Tibet. These fixers are mainly Chinese businessmen, though there are a few Tibetans.

In exchange for bribes, the crooked military officers provide sought- after permits and immunity from punishment. One Tibet activist in Europe said, "There's a very detailed shopping list of what sort of bribes and banquets you have to give to officials. Someone at the prefecture level wouldn't take anything less than a Rolex watch, for starters."

Most observers of Tibet doubt it is official Chinese policy to promote gambling and prostitution in order to undermine the exiled Dalai Lama's spiritual hold. But the Chinese do not discourage it. "The Chinese are hoping this facade of the good life - the new electronic gadgets, the bars, the pretty girls, the pop songs blaring out of loud-hailers on the streets - will hide their deliberate attempt to erase Tibet's religion, culture and language."

Aside from politics, the Chinese and Tibetans are divided by other barriers. Tibetans are appalled, for example, to see the Chinese fishing in Lhasa's jade-blue river. Tibetans believe that every life-form has consciousness, so that it's better to kill a yak, which can feed an entire village, than to sacrifice a small creature like a fish which can hardly satisfy a single person.

It also rankles Tibetans that the Chinese authorities have made their pilgrimages to the Potala Palace so dangerous. Cameras and microphones are hidden in every chamber of the vast palace, and spies, often in monks' robes, eavesdrop on any Tibetans who seem too devout in their worship of the exiled Dalai Lama. But at the Jokhang temple, not all Chinese go counter-clock wise. Some daily visitors to the temple have noticed that as Chinese communism seems to have gone adrift over the years, a few party officials, out of uniform, now visit the Jokhang to make Buddhist offerings and furtively spin the prayer wheels.